French activists renew tussle with Saudi ship on suspected arms sales

Saudi cargo ship Bahri Yanbu pictured off the port of Le Havre in May 2019, when protesters prevented it from docking.
Saudi cargo ship Bahri Yanbu pictured off the port of Le Havre in May 2019, when protesters prevented it from docking. © Loic Venance, AFP

For the third time in under a year, a Saudi cargo ship headed for a French port this week on a suspected mission to collect weapons, prompting protests from NGOs who say French arms are being used to kill civilians in the brutal Yemeni conflict.


The Bahri Yanbu docked in the port of Cherbourg on Thursday, on the coast of Normandy, where dozens of activists had gathered in protest at the sale of weapons to the Gulf state. It set sail again early the next morning after loading overnight, under cover of darkness and a heavy police presence.

Port authorities told local media they were not authorised to discuss the cargo’s content, only strengthening suspicions that the ship had come to collect French armaments – as it had on previous journeys.

“There are legitimate reasons to believe the cargo ship has come to collect weapons, and there is a real danger that these arms will then be used to commit atrocities in Yemen,” Aymeric Elluin, of Amnesty International’s French branch, told FRANCE 24.

In a joint statement released ahead of the Bahri Yanbu’s arrival, Amnesty and 18 other NGOs, trade unions and left-wing parties accused Saudi Arabia of "waging a merciless war on the people of Yemen" and "perpetrating unspeakable atrocities against a defenceless people".

"We cannot accept that the port of Cherbourg be used to serve this conflict, in the name of the interests of arms dealers and their clients," they said, noting that the ship’s parent company Bahri has an exclusive contract with the Saudi defence ministry.

NGOs had succeeded in preventing the vessel from docking in the nearby port of Le Havre last May, when it was set to receive a weapons shipment for Riyadh that sparked a similar outcry. The ship was again barred from docking earlier this week in the Belgian port of Antwerp, following a protest by local activists.

Activists said the Bahri Yanbu is now expected to make an unscheduled stop in the Spanish port of Bilbao – similar to the secretive stop it made in nearby Santander last May – before sailing on to Italy’s Genoa, where further protests are expected.

“The #BahriYanbu has left for Spain this morning. Neither NGOs nor lawmakers will know what was loaded in #Cherbourg last night,” Olivier Faure, the head of the opposition Socialist Party, wrote in a tweet on Friday, calling for “permanent parliamentary oversight of French arms sales” to be put in place.

In their statement, the NGOs called on the French government to identify what would be loaded onto the Bahri Yanbu. Should the load by weapons, they urged the government to clarify what "guarantees it has that they will not be used illegally against Yemeni civilians".

There has been no official comment on the Saudi ship from the French government.

‘Defensive’ weapons

President Emmanuel Macron’s government has repeatedly claimed that French arms sold to Saudi Arabia and its allies are used solely for defensive purposes, a stance that has become increasingly hard to maintain as the death toll from the devastating conflict continues to rise.

Pitting a Saudi-led coalition against Iranian-backed Houthi militias, the five-year conflict in Yemen has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations, whose investigators say both sides may have committed war crimes. Tens of thousands of people have been killed and some 24 million people are in need of assistance, the UN says.

The scale of the bloodshed has prompted growing criticism of the Western powers – chief among them the US, Britain and France – that arm the Saudi coalition.

France’s lucrative arms exports to the Gulf came under renewed scrutiny last year following the leak of a classified report showing that the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has made much wider use of French arms than officials in Paris acknowledge.

The 15-page note by France's DRM military intelligence agency, which was published last April by investigative website Disclose, showed that French arms including tanks and laser-guided missile systems sold to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are being used in the conflict, and that swathes of Yemen’s civilian population live within their range.

Along with the leaked report, Disclose published further documents on France’s arms trade with the Gulf – including a video charting the journey of a Bahri-owned ship loaded with French tanks that sailed from Le Havre to the Saudi port of Jeddah in late 2018.

In response to Disclose’s investigation, the French government stressed that all its arms sales complied with France’s international commitments, including the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which bans the sale of weapons that fuel human rights violations or war crimes.

“All exports of military equipment are subjected to strict, transparent and responsible controls,” the French prime minister’s office reiterated at the time.

Critics of the French government have repeatedly claimed it is in clear breach of its obligations under the ATT. However, experts note that such breaches are very hard to prove.

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